For the foreseeable future, la Seleccion Colombiana is just going to have to tough it out and deal with the ultimately awesome kinds of problems that come with having too much talent to possibly fit one starting lineup — or one 24-man roster, at that.
The recently crowned #3 team in the global FIFA rankings is not as well-known or historically distinguished as some of its elite counterparts, but more and more it is facing the same ambiguously win-win, lose-lose dilemmas. It’s never a bad thing to have two or more world class players competing for the same spot, and internal roster tension is the best medicine for the stagnancy that often plagues international sides with big reputations and big names. But when you have two or more players competing for the same spot at just about every position in the attacking third of the field, which Colombia pretty much does (Luis Muriel, Udinese stud, is probably their fifth-string striker), things have a way of getting messy.
Manchester City is the most obvious recent example of why a superabundance of attacking players is not always a good thing. (Argentina’s national team is another.) This past season, Roberto Mancini fell just a little bit too much in love with his own strategic genius on a game-to-game basis, and rotated his lineup like a mechanical bull. City fell into what only a really, really well-endowed team could possibly call a rut, but it was a rut nonetheless. And while the Colombians don’t have the Mario Tevez locker room hissy-fit factor to worry about, the issue of consistency is just as real a concern.
The combination of Macnelly Torres, Teofilo Gutierrez and Radamel Falcao — Colombia’s starters in its most recent match against Peru — is as aggressive an attacking front as any in the world, but of the three, only Falcao’s starting spot is locked for Rio 2014 (sealed in cast iron would be more like it), and the reserves run deep indeed. Qualifiers are the obvious test tubes for the strange sort of alchemy that produces World Cup gold, and Colombia has put itself in a safe position to start getting wacky with its experiments. Still, at a certain point, Jose Peckerman is going to have to make a series of extremely difficult, arguably enviable choices and pick a steady lineup. On the one hand, there is essentially no way for him to go dramatically wrong. On the other, there has been so much attention devoted to the national team in the Colombian press that the only way for him to go dramatically right is to achieve Absolute Victory — anything short of that and the couchside coaches will be screaming themselves into early graves, telling their televisions to put in the other guy.
Fair or not, the result is all that matters in sports.
Luckily for Peckerman, some of his choices might just be making themselves.
The Buddy System, Part 1: Keep it in the Family
All the best teams in international soccer have a healthy helping of players that play club football together. You could argue that the single greatest disadvantage facing South America as a global footballing entity is that, because of the sparcity of elite players in local leagues, none of its sides get to play the same game of cut-and-paste dress-up as a Spain (Barcelona with a sprinkling of Real Madrid makes for great tapas) or a Germany (Bayern + Dortmund = Jesus Christ I’m terrified), despite having just as many fun arts and crafts to work with. In leagues that retain most of their own talent, the temptation for big local clubs to horde all the national team players is obvious. But the logic of importing in bulk is equally undeniable, and Colombia’s best route forging ahead might be the one that leads through as many clusters of Colombians as possible.
Porto FC: The Colombian Factory in Portugal
The signing of Juan Fernando Quintero in June established Porto FC as the most prolific overseas import-export business dealing in Colombian merchandise since Freeway Rick Ross and Chiquita Banana. Over the past few years, the Portuguese giant has brought in no less than six of Colombia’s finest (Quintero, Jackson Martinez, Freddy Guarin, Falcao, James Rodriguez, and Hector Quinonez — who is delightful but doesn’t play for the national team, yet), three of which were subsequently sold at great profit (Gurain, Falcao, Rodriguez), the other three of which probably will be at some point.
Being a middle-money club in European football is a complicated proposition. You have enough resources to take good players from smaller clubs, but not enough to keep great ones. You have enough talent to have expectations to live up to, but not always enough to actually achieve them. Which is why it’s always interesting to watch a team, like Porto, not only make consistently calculated business investments, but also maintain a high level of play throughout.
Arsenal has converted itself into something of a running parody of that exact approach to football management, but that is because Arsenal is not a middle-money football team and chooses to spend like one, for reasons Arsenal fans have been trying to discern in the dregs of their pint glasses for the better part of a decade. But Porto does not have Arsenal money. It doesn’t play in the EPL, and it just won the league it does play in. And with a fraction of the budgets its EPL equivalents bring to bear, Porto looked legitimately dangerous in the Champions League, which it won in the not-so-distant past with similarly limited resources. Arsenal is a sellout for displaying winning football that doesn’t win in the right ways; Porto won a trophy and now gets to sell the same type of business-first thinking as football genius.
Fair or not, the result is all that matters in sports.
The Buddy System, Part 2: Because It’s Lonely Over There
Part of Porto’s success, and a big part of why they keep dipping their hand in the arepa pot, stems from how beneficial it is to bring in playmates for all your foreign guys, especially the younger ones. (Jackson Martinez spoke recently about how much having James Rodriguez in Porto meant to him, and how he plans to be the same sort of guiding presence for Quintero.) It’s hard for North American sports fans to understand how much the internationality of soccer effects the sport, because of how limited a role it plays in the Big Three leagues in the States (the NBA, NFL and MLB — hockey doesn’t count, because it never does, and because having entire teams composed entirely of Russians makes you a Russian hockey team, not an international American one). Getting passed around city to city is hard enough on an athlete’s psychology; getting packaged around the planet is enough to try basic human sanity.
Imagine playing for a coach who cannot speak to you directly, on a team whose various international factions, of which there are eight or nine, can communicate between one another solely through the use of translators, creative sign language and a bouncing spherical object. Imagine being inserted into a set of new, completely foreign circumstances and told that your livelihood depends on you performing as well as you did within the old one. In Europe, that is basically the norm at this point, and the best strategy for dealing with the global realities of the football industry is to follow Noah’s example, and ship players in pairs, or better. Of the 12 countries represented on the Porto roster, five have multiple representatives, four have more than two, and only two speak languages none of the others do.
The Buddy System is as time-tested as it is ubiquitous in the modern game. Oscar, David Luiz and Ramires at Chelsea; Lavezzi and Pastore in Paris; Pepe, Marcelo, Ronaldo and Contrao in Madrid (Marcelo is the odd Brazilian out, but they all speak the same language, at least): these are famous examples of a basic structural fact of international football. Monaco, which recently dug deep for Falcao, saw fit to also take a money dive on Falcao’s compatriot James Rodriguez this summer — which, of course, created the need for Porto to go out and shop for a new Colombian number 10 to keep Jackson Martinez company (Martinez being the replacement for Falcao when the latter left for Madrid), which brought Quintero to Porto (for 10 million euros — they sold James for 47), and which brings us back to the tangled web of choices Colombia will have to make come Cup time.
World Cup 2014: Bringing Europe to Colombia
National teams have so little time to practice together that having even a small pocket of overlapping club players presents an incalculable boost for on-field chemistry. If nothing else, it provides something of a core identity. James Rodriguez, who plays like Ozil would if he liked taking people on more and wasn’t so terrified of shooting, is probably going to be starting for Colombia in 2014 regardless of who signs his regular paycheck. But even if he wasn’t, a full year of playing club soccer alongside the best player on the Colombian national team would be enough to justify pushing him into the starting 11. Similarly, James’ starting means that Jackson Martinez — who scored 34 goals last year, approximately 27 of which were gollassos, and could be the most ruthless, physically imposing striker in Europe behind Robert Lewandowski — almost definitely will be too, even if Teofilo Gutierrez was the more impressive player, which he sometimes has been. Juan Quintero is young, but he falls in the noble line of tiny left-footed geniuses with no fear and more skill than three players would know what to do with. He was the most exciting player in the U-20 World Cup in Turkey, and will now have a year to combine up top with Martinez, and prove that the comparison I just made between him, Maradona and Lionel Messi wasn’t as heinous as it obviously was.
Falcao playing with Rodriguez, who played beautifully with Martinez, who is going to be eating everything Quintero and his magical little feet serve up: it’s an odd sort of thread, but if you reverse the order and throw in some quick passing, an upper-90s half-volley for Falcao and someone shouting “GOOOOLLLL” at the end, it already sounds like a play-by-play recording people 20 years from now will use to define one of the most exciting teams of a generation. Why would you not give that a try at least? In a World Cup that features a jacked-up Brazilian side, a pissed-off Spanish one (which doesn’t sound nearly as threatening when you try and picture Andres Iniesta snarling) and, among others, Ze Germans, pace and dynamism up top is going to be the theme of the tournament. And it just so happens that Colombia has one of the fastest, most dynamic rosters in the world, if they choose to use it. If running hard and pouncing like pumas is what your game is about, why not double down? Why not dictate terms? More importantly though, the Buddy System works, and any system at all that helps narrow down all the backhandedly blessed choices out there in the world of theoretical football metaphysics should be a welcome one for a man in Jose Peckerman’s humble shoes.
Transitioning into the future, Quintero, Jackson and Rodriguez are the clear core of a Colombian attack that is already one of the funnest in the world to watch. But all the touches they’re (kind of) getting together means they could be that core in the present, too.
Maybe it’s too soon. Maybe Quintero isn’t ready. Maybe Colombia’s 4-1-3-2 doesn’t have room for two left-footed attacking midfielders. Does Colombia want balance, or balls out attack? Playmaking or possession? Two-way players or unidirectional forces of nature?
These are some of the many exhausting thought experiments Mr. Peckerman is going to spend a lot of time and hair follicles parsing, but if you are a Colombian soccer fan, you should just take a moment to appreciate the way the sky looks in Dreamland, where having to decide which of your immensely talented strikers is going to combine with Radamel Falcao can fairly be called a problem.
It’s blue up there, isn’t it? Try not to get too bored with the weather.
- Héctor Quiñónez, nuevo jugador del Porto de Portugal (FutbolRed.co)
- Quintero ilumina el Mundial y se va para Porto (WinSports.co)